By Leonard Shapiro
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, May 28, 2008 2:15 PM
Unless you've been living in Pittsburgh in recent years, you've probably never heard of Mark Madden, let alone had the displeasure of hearing his highly rated low-brow sports talk show on the city's ESPN-owned and operated radio station.
And better yet, no one except the people in the same room with him will be listening to Madden any time soon in Pittsburgh, and perhaps anywhere else. On Tuesday, he was permanently taken off the air of 1250 ESPN, six days after making despicably vile comments concerning the news last week that Sen. Edward M. Kennedy has been diagnosed with brain cancer.
"I'm very disappointed to hear that Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts is near death because of a brain tumor," Madden said during the opening of his popular afternoon drive time show from 3-7 p.m. "I always hoped Sen. Kennedy would live long enough to be assassinated. I wonder if he got a card from the Kopechnes."
(The last sentence was a reference to Mary Jo Kopechne, a Kennedy aide who drowned in a 1969 accident, with Kennedy driving a car that plunged off a bridge in Cape Cod.)
Madden made his comments last Wednesday, but incredibly, was not initially disciplined. Instead, his immediate boss, station general manager Mike Thompson, told him he had to go on the air and apologize. Madden did, and was allowed to keep broadcasting that day, and Thursday, though he did not appear on the show Friday on what station promos often refer to as "The Mark Madden Station."
"The fact is, we took action right away," Thompson told the Pittsburgh Press-Gazette. "Frankly, it was a comment that was stupid. He admitted that. I didn't think it requires any such thing as (discipline)...I had a long talk with him after the show and went out for dinner. He clearly understands my position. He was wrong. He knows that first-hand and he also knows that (management) is involved."
Some offended listeners clearly disagreed, as did readers who learned about Madden's Kennedy comments in last Friday's editions of the Press-Gazette in a column written by Bob Smizik, a long-time Pittsburgh sports columnist. Smizik also questioned how ESPN, the sports media juggernaut, could possibly continue to allow Madden to stay on the air.
"Keep in mind that 1250 ESPN is owned by ESPN, a network that prides itself on high ethical standards," Smizik wrote. "ESPN is part of the ABC family, and ABC is owned by Disney. It only can be concluded that no one in this steep chain of command, and they should have been aware of it, felt Madden's comment merited punishment."
ESPN clearly had been aware of it, and on Tuesday following a three-day holiday weekend, the cable network finally took action.
"We've taken him off the air pursuant to our contractual right," Josh Krulewitz, ESPN's vice president of public relations told washingtonpost.com. "In the moment, we immediately said what he had said on the show was totally inappropriate. There was never any question about it, and we told Mark that. We apologized to our listeners and Mark apologized on the air.
"Since then, we had a chance to regroup, to review the situation and to take a longer look. We came to this decision and we feel it's the right decision."
The only remaining question being asked in many quarters of the Steel City is "what took them so long?"
There obviously was some outrage over Madden's initial comments, but for years he's been maligning some of Pittsburgh's more iconic sports figures with half-truths, innuendo and mostly inappropriate comments. Steelers owner Dan Rooney, golfer Arnold Palmer, football stars Jerome Bettis and Franco Harris, former Pirates manager Jim Leyland and even the late and wildly popular Steelers broadcaster Myron Cope, among many others, often were the targets of a boorish broadcaster making a six-figure salary whose main redeeming quality was the fact his show dominated his time slot with unusually high ratings.
Fair comment and criticism is one thing, but Madden often took the low-down road any chance he got, often with the exception of the Pittsburgh Penguins, a team he unabashedly rooted for as a fan on and off the air.
"The sad part is he had a following," said one long-time Pittsburgh newspaper reporter. "He's wished death on people before, even said on the air he hoped their planes crashed. He's told listeners he had sex with their wives. There was some talk about him being fired last December, but they put him on a short leash and told him this stuff had to stop. But this one was pretty bad, the worst of anything he's ever said."
"I'm not that surprised he was allowed to stay on," said one long-time Washington radio executive. "The competition for ratings in a lot of markets has driven some people nuts. So many stations are barely making it by the skin of their teeth. To survive, sometimes you do wacko things to attract an audience. It's dead wrong, but it's the reality of what's happening in the business all around the country. When you tell me what he said on the air about Kennedy, I just can't imagine anything that would keep his rear end from being dumped."
In the end, ESPN clearly did the right thing in a decision that ultimately came down from the worldwide leader's Bristol, Conn., headquarters. Madden will be paid for the duration of his contract, but sources indicated he will never appear on the station again.
Perhaps ESPN's proper but somewhat belated dismissal also will serve as a warning to some of the mean-spirited, frequently irresponsible shock-jock broadcasters who talk sports, politics or whatever in radio studios all across the country (are you listening Michael Savage?) Maybe they'll now think twice before spewing their venomous remarks.
Then again, after Don Imus was tossed off the air last year following his offensive and totally inappropriate on-air comments about the Rutgers women's basketball team, you might have thought some of these mopes might have paid attention and cleaned up their own acts.
Mark Madden surely did not, and for now (emphasis on "for now") it cost him his job. Still, how much would you care to wager that he won't be unemployed for very long. He'll be back on the air somewhere, maybe even on a rival station in Pittsburgh. Sadly, the ratings beast must be fed, and far too often, at any price.
Leonard Shapiro can be reached at Len.Shapiro@washingtonpost.com.